While interviewing restaurant owners and chefs this summer, I’ve had several phone chats that ended with some variation on the same theme: “Hey, I know you’re not writing reviews just yet, but if you go to the restaurant and see something we can work on, please tell us. Just a hint would be great.”

In normal times, I don’t give casual feedback to restaurants. In my role as critic, I do not work for the restaurants I write about. I am neither their advocate nor their adversary. Primarily, I work for you, the reader and potential customer.

At the same time, restaurants do benefit from being reviewed. A glowing write-up means positive publicity, and a bad review offers an open-minded chef or owner an opportunity to identify problems and correct them. Play it right, and a review is like free consulting and free marketing, wrapped into one tidy, multimedia package.

But since early 2020, I have been off the clock when I am dining out or ordering in. It has been refreshing to devote most of my attention to the people with me, rather than focusing on being thorough – tasting every single dish my party has ordered, snapping clandestine photos, thumbing notes into my phone, and more often than not, neglecting the conversations at my own table so I can listen in on what other patrons are saying. It isn’t uncommon for me to leave a review meal with 500 words of notes.

Still, even when I’m not working, I pick up on extremes. During COVID, that never changed. There was the hour-long wait for a prearranged takeout order I placed at one of my favorite restaurants in Portland last October; a minutely portioned, under-seasoned New Year’s Eve takeout “feast” that felt like a disappointing (and therefore fitting) end to 2020; or, the worst of the bunch, a casual restaurant whose servers went rogue and decided to stop taking telephone orders every night at around 6 p.m. last summer. “No, we’re not overwhelmed,” the front-of-house staff admitted to me when I called and was rebuffed for the 11th time in two weeks. “Our kitchen just doesn’t like to be busy.”

That last example led me to deliver my first off-the-clock feedback in years, when the restaurant’s owner contacted me to ask why I had omitted his business from my Best Takeout list. I debated whether to say anything to him, then concluded that, while I’ve made good on my promise to remain as uncritical as possible in this column about fragile restaurants until our normal cycle of reviews begins again, I haven’t made that same pledge about private conversations.

“Wow, that’s awful,” he said when I relayed the full story. Panicked, he then asked the question I knew was coming. “You’re not writing a review, are you?”

I wasn’t. But as we inch toward an ever more complete reopening, I’ve been reassessing what it means to be critical in 2021.

I think about a restaurant review as a referendum on promises – the explicit, full-throated ones made by a menu or an Instagram feed, as well as the tacit, unspoken ones made by décor, design and theme. These days, it’s harder to parse the text and subtext of a restaurant’s promises. Everyone, from the server to the chef to the general manager and the owner, is busy trying to work out what pledges a restaurant can make and which it can keep.

As the state reopens fully, customers also have to recalibrate expectations, especially of restaurants they remember from pre-pandemic days. At this stage, only the willfully ignorant haven’t heard about the staffing drought and supply-chain hiccups that complicate a restaurant’s ability to stay in business. Collectively, we’re all trying to figure out what’s reasonable. I hope we can all be patient and gracious throughout this transition period.

Yet, as I’ve been told directly, restaurants really do want feedback. It’s time we start girding ourselves, because inevitably, some of it will be negative.

I’m not the only one saying this out loud. In a terrific article in the San Francisco Chronicle last month, critic Soleil Ho channeled her inner Jonathan Swift in issuing a modest proposal that I’ve retweeted and forwarded to almost everyone I know:

“[J]ust letting things slide all the time, without actively doing or saying anything to help the work become better, just facilitates stagnation. In a world without the mitigating factor of a pandemic hanging over our heads, not speaking up is disrespectful of both the creators and the consumers….A policy of no negativity just leaves them in the dark about how they can do better. In fact, I think I should be writing more negative reviews once things settle.”

Personally, I’m not ready to kick off a spate of negative critiques. But as I begin reviewing again next month, I am comfortable saying that I should write more frank, honest ones. (I think back to my mother’s best friend who decided to get bangs one summer. Everyone spent six months pretending her new haircut didn’t make her look like a Playmobil figure. In staying silent, we all lost.)

Why now? Reservations at many popular spots (especially in Greater Portland) are scarcer than ever, just as the costs of labor and ingredients keep nudging restaurant bills higher. If you’re going to pay more to eat out less, my job should be to make your dollars count.

If, along the way, a local destination restaurant figures out that its new chef’s pan-Asian menu is too conceptually diffuse and nowhere near spicy enough, or a newish pasta spot gets the message that it should probably spend some time coaching line cooks on what “al dente” means, well then, fantastic. With a new commitment to candor and truthful reflection, we all win. But it’s time to stop hinting.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of four recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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